It's not easy to find real remoteness in the UK. Such is the latticework of tarmac that to be more than a few kilometres or hours from a road is actually quite a hard task to accomplish. The Cairngorms are one of the best known exceptions; a series of huge rounded mountains sculpted by great coires and deep glens. No public roads penetrate the interior, just a few estate tracks which fizzle out into the wilderness. Spending any time in the Cairngorms is an adventure, and in winter especially so; the season clings strongly to these mountains, harder and harsher than anywhere else in the UK, defending them against intrusion in the short hours of daylight. It also turns them into one of the most beautiful landscapes we have.
BraeriachThird highest mountain in Britain, after Ben Nevis and Ben Macdui.
Nearest town: Aviemore
Grid Ref: NN 952999
Maps: OS Explorer 403 (1:25,000)
OS Landranger 36 (1:50,000)
OS Landranger 43 (1:50,000)
Guidebooks: SMC The Munros
More info including map and weather forecast: UKH Hills: Braierach
With a good weather window promising clear skies and little wind it seamed like an excellent opportunity to experience a big day out on Braeriach. Volunteers were easy to get hold of, with my friends Nick, Sarah, and Laurence signing up for the trip. The route we had picked started as per this UKH Route Card. It would take us through some spectacular wild terrain, challenge our navigation, and put our winter skills to the test.
From the Sugar Bowl car park we would wind our way below the great northern coires of Cairn Gorm, through the Chalamain Gap, and into the huge valley of the Liarig Ghru; then we would climb the southern ridge of Braeriach, Britain's third highest mountain and a vast upland plateau of sub-arctic tundra. Then, to return a different way, we would drop into An Garbh Coire, which takes a great bite out of the eastern side of Braeriach, stopping at a tiny remote bothy before heading back to the car through the Lairig Ghru.
The morning is cold and clear, with a light dusting of snow covering the heather as we follow a good path gently rising across the mountainside towards the Chalamain Gap. The coires of Sneachda and Lochain, winter playground of countless climbers, appear against the southern skyline, buttresses black and stark against the white snow filling the gullies. As the sun rises the sky becomes tinged with pink as whisps of cloud catch the first rays. The light feels cold though, and the icy crunch of gravel underfoot and streams of breath condensing in the air hint at the conditions outside our thermals and warm winter boots.
The Chalamain Gap is a chaotic jumble of boulders cast haphazardly against each other choking the deep narrow notch between Lurchers Crag and Creag Chalamain. Moving through them is a full body experience weaving left and right, climbing up and down, a hand hold here, a knee used there. The powder decorating the boulders hides some of the gaps, creating a trap for the poorly placed foot.
The gap ends suddenly, opening out to look down on the edge of Rothiemurchus Forest. Dropping down from the gap into the head of the Lairig Ghru it becomes very boggy underfoot as the ground tries to decide if it wants to be a stream or a path. To the left the great U-shaped valley of the Lairig Ghru proper opens out, starkly symetrical and curving slowly round into the middle distance.
In the foot of the valley we briefly follow the stream uphill along the floor of the ravine until it disappears underground among a jumble of boulders. Soon after this a path breaks off right and begins the long climb onto the mountain, offering a spectacular view over towards Gleann Einich and a snow draped Sgor Gaoaith. By the time we reach the shoulder of Sron na Lairige the weather forecast has gone well out the window; cloud rolling in from the south envelopes us and the wind picks up, whipping the warmth from any exposed skin.
Shortly before the summit I get my first experience of a full complete whiteout. Snow and sky blend seamlessly together cloaking us in all directions with not a single speck of black or colour to indicate up from down, or north from south. Thoughts of the of the great cliffs and possible monster cornices off somewhere to our left stir uneasily in my mind, but after a short bit of compass work we see boulders again poking up through the snow and later the summit cairn itself.
Here we meet two other walkers who are planing to traverse on towards the Devils Point before dropping down to spend the night at Corrour bothy. We snatch a few words over the wind which blasts in our faces, then turn in the hope of descending quickly to find some shelter. Initial plans to locate the top of West Gully, a simple grade one snow slope decending into Choire Bhrochain, are abandoned as suicidal because even in these low snow conditions the cornice overhanging the gully is huge and we're not carrying a rope to protect the unfortunate 'volunteer with the ice axe' required to smash a way through. A much more sensible route off the plateau is down the broad slope between Coire Bhrochain and Garbh Choire Dhaidh.
After a bit of careful navigation this proves to be a gloriously easy descent, first down good neve, and then softer but still good snow which extends down and down toward the floor of the coire far below. The descent would be a joy on ski in the right conditions, but Sarah and I both left the planks back in the cottage and can only dream of what might have been.
An Garbh Coire is renowned for collecting vast quantities of snow blown in off the high plateau to the west, often creating cornices of stupendous size. In the coire itself many snow patches will last well into summer and in some of the sheltered corners high up the snow has only melted a few times in the last hundred years. Then there is Coire an Lochain Uaine, hanging above the main coire and seeming almost inaccessible from below.
This year, however, snow appears to be in short supply with plenty of tufts of heather poking through, and the ground relatively unfrozen such has been the uncharacteristically warm and dry weather the past few months. The bothy, which is actually just a small shelter constructed from boulders over a metal frame, is easily visible in the light covering and we stop to brew up a hot chocolate and catch a bite to eat. Sat outside the bothy, stove roaring as hot chocolate bubbles away, I realise this is one of the most remote places in the country. It's an exciting feeling.
Following the burn out of the coire down the natural fall line takes you too far to the south, so we traverse out toward the Lairig Ghru with the huge bulk of Ben Macdui directly ahead. Crossing the infant River Dee, here little more than a few feet wide, we turn north and towards the summit of the pass and the Pools of Dee. The trail rises to a gentle summit where the burn emerges from a snow bank just below a couple of small pools which are still free of ice. From here the valley curves out of sight to the north, almost perfectly uniform slopes rising both left and right.
An abiding memory of the next few miles is rocks, rocks, rocks, a succession of scrambling through a mass of snow-covered boulders, slipping this way and that and then disappearing up to my knees in a snow drift. In heavy snow conditions this section would be a breeze but today it saps our energy and feels tough coming towards the end of a long route. The Lairig Ghru is an awe-inspiring place both in scale and desolate beauty. The walls tower above, sometimes broken by crags or split by tasty looking gullies full of snow and ice - adventures for another day. Retracing our steps from the Gap, with the light dying around us and our legs tiring from the day's efforts, our thoughts turn to an evening of pie and beer - proper food after a proper day's work.
About Jon Miles
"I'm a keen walker, climber, and mountain biker based in Leeds but with my heart in Scotland and especially the far north west. Particularly fond of big easy mountain routes or big winter days on the hills. I'm a huge fan of mountain literature so not really a surprise that I wanted to try and write something myself."
More stories of adventures in the hills, and musings on whatever has inspired or annoyed Jon about life in general can be found in his blog: The Mountain Goat.